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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

The battle to be Neuer's undisputed deputy

In the absence of Germany's No1, Joachim Low varies his goalkeeper options at Confederations Cup, writes Ian Hawkey.

Germany’s adventures at the Confederations Cup were always going to be regarded partly as a series of individual auditions.

By naming a young, experimental squad for the tournament, manager Joachim Low invited that view. He could hardly be surprised, then, when one man’s sloppy performance in the world champions’ tournament opener, the 3-2 win over Australia, drew a damning verdict.

“It could be all over for Bernd Leno and the 2018 World Cup,” surmised one German newspaper the morning after the goalkeeper fluffed his lines, at fault for both Australian goals, the first a shot that slithered beneath his dive, the second a gift for Tomi Juric, Leno having parried the ball into Juric's path rather than catch or steer it away.

"Leno made some errors, but I am not worried about that. He’s a good goalkeeper,” Low said.

Germany have a few of those. Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, left at home recuperating from a foot injury, is Low’s clear No 1, and the hierarchy of the rest tends to be annotated not as second, third, or fourth choice but as 2a, 2b, and 2c.

Low indicated ahead of the Confederation Cup that all three of the glovemen selected for the Russia expedition, Bayer Leverkusen’s Leno, Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kevin Trapp, should expect to play at least a match. Leno may have to stew on the bench while Germany take on Chile today.

Leno played in the first game because Ter Stegen and Trapp had each been given the gloves in Germany’s previous matches, against San Marino and Denmark respectively. They gave good accounts of themselves, and both would hope that the cachet of their respective clubs counts in their favour.

Leno’s Leverkusen had a tough season. So, in some ways did Barcelona, second in the Primera Liga, and PSG, runners-up in France, but Ter Stegen and Trapp both established themselves as first choice with their clubs.

Trapp recovered from being dropped by PSG in the autumn, while Ter Stegen won a fierce duel for status with Claudio Bravo, whom Barcelona sold to Manchester City, and who, like Leno, may have to watch the next instalment of the Great German goalkeeping audition from the sidelines today.

Bravo is Chile’s captain, but has been nursing an injury in Russia. He missed his country’s win over Cameroon, the veteran Johnny Herrera deputising.

What Bravo could certainly tell Leno is that Ter Stegen is an ambitious rival. For two seasons at Barca, Bravo kept goal in league games, while Ter Stegen was designated the keeper for Uefa Champions League and domestic Cup commitments.

The German won trophies in those competitions but became dissatisfied with the division of labour and said so, loud and clear. German followers of Ter Stegen would not be surprised to know that.

When he and Leno were rivals at German under-21 level, the duel for status was so fierce that Rudi Voller, the head of football at Leverkusen and a former national team manager, advised that they should not go together to the 2015 European under-21 championship, for the sake of a peaceful atmosphere.

They are co-habiting in Russia, and Ter Stegen will hope in the coming days he can strengthen his case. His fans would argue that, if Low is seeking a deputy to Neuer whose style is closest to Neuer’s then Ter Stegen is the man. He prides himself on his willingness to act as the modern keeper-sweeper, in the way Neuer does. His passing, with his feet, is accurate and confident.

He also comes out of his area willingly, so much so that one Barcelona-based columnist earlier this season remarked of his risk-taking: “Ter Stegen is not scripted by his coach, Luis Enrique, he’s scripted by Alfred Hitchcock.” His thrill-a-minute safaris upfield, founded on the principle of supporting a high pressing game, can leave his team exposed.

That sort of boldness is precisely what Bravo was heavily criticised for during his difficult first season at City. The Chile captain, brought to English football by an admiring City manager, Pep Guardiola, has concerns this summer beyond the calf problem he carried into the Confederation Cup.

City have paid €40 million (Dh163.8m) to Benfica for the 23-year-old Brazilian Ederson Moraes, a move Bravo cannot help but see as a sign that his status has waned.